Friday, May 29, 2009

sex in young adult fiction(one librarian's view part 2)

In conclusion of yesterday's guest blog, here is librarian Lucia Lemieux on Sex in YA:

If some authors feel graphic description is necessary to their work, it is their prerogative. However, it is also a parent’s prerogative not to allow a minor to read a certain book, or watch a certain film. That’s the American way. It gets fuzzier when it comes to libraries. Library school, if nothing else, teaches librarians that individual core values should never be a factor in collection decisions—at least at the public library level. Some would disagree, because a library is considered a “limited public forum” and as such, may not have all of the same First Amendment liberties as other public forums. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to get into legalities here. Generally, at the public library level, librarians are supposed to be neutral. For now, most public librarians try to balance their collections with as many views as their budgets will allow.

School libraries can be another matter. School personnel are in loco parentis, Latin for “in place of a parent.” This means that teachers, which librarians are (one must hold a clear teaching credential to even be accepted to a library credential program), must act in a parent’s stead with regard to health and safety issues. A recent article in School Library Journal, confirms this, but with the caveat that this doctrine does not apply to censorship (Feb, 2009). However, the same article did suggest that governments (schools?) might censor materials that are obscene, contain child pornography or are harmful to minors. What constitutes obscenity? Whose definition should a librarian use? At schools, we tend to look at materials through an age-appropriate lens. Obviously, books at the high school level can contain different information than books at an elementary level. However, age-appropriateness continues to change, as more authors write increasingly explicit materials for the children’s and young adult audience.

Although teacher-librarians are trained to make material selection decisions based on many criteria, they don’t always have the final say. In many school districts, librarians have to write purchase orders for books. Titles are required. Sometimes the librarians get what they ask for; sometimes certain titles are rejected. Many of us try to push the envelope a bit, but there is a fine line. Highly graphic depictions of sex are generally not the domain of school libraries. But once a book is there, it is there. Librarians normally don’t remove them. That would be censorship. So what’s a librarian to do?

Let’s take another look at my experience with The Exorcist. Had I gone to the public library instead of the drugstore, the librarian may have intervened a bit. While she would never tell me what to read or what not to read, she would make suggestions, or give hints. Had she noticed me checking out The Exorcist, Mrs. H. may have said, “Honey, you are welcome to read this book (remember I had a permission slip on file) but you should know that it contains some very graphic rape scenes that might be disturbing.” Well, she probably would have whispered “rape scenes” or used some euphemism, but I would have understood. At thirteen, I probably would not have taken the book out with such a warning. But maybe today’s kids are different. I don’t know. My daughter is 15, and she doesn’t like the graphic stuff either. She too would rather use her imagination. Personally, I think we all can learn something from Mrs. H.’s kind of librarianship. Sometimes a gentle heads-up can make a huge difference. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, if we all use some common sense—from author on down—censorship would never have to be an issue at all.

By the way, I looked at my high school library shelf. Guess what book I found? I thought I’d check it out, and see what impression it left me this time.

I’ll let you all know.